I started my internship at the WeChangEd-project by getting acquainted with the Nodegoat database. Luckily, I didn’t have to begin from scratch—Marianne had already put together lists of names in the early stages of the project. We quickly decided that I would be working on Dutch and Belgian editors, transferring data from the existing excel file into the database, adding information wherever I could find it. The spreadsheet for the Netherlands looked promising: it contained no less than 139 names and in the next couple of weeks I feel like I have gotten to know a veritable army of Dutch women editors. Digital databases like Huygens’s Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, BWSA and DBNL were chock full of information and provided me with hours of reading and scrolling through the well-documented lives of one editor to the next. So when I opened the file for the Belgian editors and found only thirty names listed I decided to go in search of more names to add. This sounds easier than it was: preliminary google searches left me with some ideas as to which books I should consult, but not much more. I went to the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, spent a day leafing through books and repertories and found basically nothing. Where were all those Belgian women editors hiding? Did I just not know where and how to look for them or were they really not there? The answer, it seems, is a combination of both.

Firstly, there do seem to have been fewer women editors and writers in Belgium than in the surrounding countries. Both Christophe Verbruggen and Liselotte Vandenbussche make comments to that effect: Verbruggen mentions the discrepancy between the numbers of women joining authors’ organizations in Belgium and the Netherlands or France. He acknowledges that this might be due to the fact that women feel less compelled to cast themselves as professional authors, as Geraldine Reymenants has claimed, but then this holds true for Belgian women especially.[1] Vandenbussche, who examined the role of liberal women in Flemish literary periodicals, mentions only a few women who were part of an editorial board and even fewer who were editor in chief.[2] This raises some questions: were Belgian women just less interested in pursuing writing or were they just not inclined to step forward? Does it have to do—as Vandenbussche suggests—with the fact that the need for a legitimate Flemish identity overshadowed the need for individual emancipation of women writers?[3] That probably accounts for part of the story. Another part of the story is explained by Julie Carlier in her article ‘Forgotten Transnational Connections and National Contexts: an ‘entangled history’ of the political transfers that shaped Belgian feminism, 1890–1914’

The economic success of Belgium depended upon low wages, a high percentage of women and child labourers and the virtual absence of protective labour legislation before World War I. The dominance of the Catholics in politics and society—particularly in girls’ education—as well as the absence of compulsory (public) education prior to 1914, prove to have been very important factors in the relatively late emergence of women’s suffrage activism in Belgium […][4]

It is safe to assume that the two factors mentioned by Carlier had an equally large influence on the number of women writers and editors.

 Secondly, when working on the list of Dutch editors I had a lot of online material to work with. Delpher, for example, is a platform that contains millions of digitized papers, books and periodicals, which makes it a goldmine for discovering new editors. It also allows you to find more obscure editors who would otherwise probably never have made the database. Along with the other websites I’ve mentioned above this facilitates the research a lot. For more extensive research you still need to visit archives and libraries, but you also have a better idea where to start looking. Belgium seems to be lagging behind a bit on that front so that most of the time it would be difficult to find additional information when a new name popped up. This lack of digitization especially complicates finding the lesser-known women who haven’t been researched yet, which is a shame, because part of the charm of working on this project was discovering how many women editors there were in the delimited period. This is not to say that the research becomes impossible, but it slows down the process considerably.

Just to be clear, the situation is not quite as bleak as perhaps I make it sound. There were strong female editors like Marie Belpaire, Caroline Popp-Boussart, Emilie Claeys, Isabelle Gatti de Gamond and many more. One of my favorites, to let loose my inner fangirl for a moment, is Céline Dangotte, a member of a women’s club called De Flinken (The Bold Ones). The members of the club came together frequently to discuss social themes and (feminist) literature, stimulating each other in their private study and taking long walks in the countryside.[5] (Really, can first-wave feminism get any more idyllic than that?)

All gushing aside, I do think we will find more Belgian women editors during the course of the project. In the short period I’ve spent researching Belgian editors I’ve really only scratched the surface. Archives and libraries like RoSa centre of expertise and AVG-Carhif are bound to hold more names, and as far as I can see there hasn’t been extensive research on historical fashion periodicals in Belgium, which will probably bring even more female editors to the surface. Hopefully the project will be able to bring the hitherto invisible to light.

Nikki De Grave Geeraert
(07/07/2016)

[1] Christophe Verbruggen, 2009. Schrijverschap in de Belgische Belle Epoque. Ghent: Academia Press, p. 85.

[2] Liselotte Vandenbussche, “Schoon, zoet en zedig? De literaire kritiek over het werk van vrouwen in Vlaamse, neutrale en liberale tijdschriften (1870-1914)” in Verslagen van het RUG-centrum voor genderstudies 17, p. 41.

[3] Ibid., p. 40.

[4] Julie Carlier, “Forgotten Transnational Connections and National Contexts: An ‘Entangled History’ of the Political Transfers that Shaped Belgian Feminism, 1890–1914” in Women’s History Review, Vol. 19, No. 4 (2010), p. 505.

[5] Christophe Verbruggen & Julie Carlier, “‘Wat zullen de kinderen lezen?’ Een sociaalkritische en feministische invulling van goede kinderliteratuur” in Brood en rozen (2011-2012),  p. 7.